This story originally appeared on the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science website to mark Earth Day 2021. Stay tuned to the EESM website for updates to the projects described in this story.
Antarctic ice sheets crashing into the ocean. Clouds zipping across the Midwestern sky. Gases from Amazonian trees drifting across hundreds of miles. Wildfires burning across the American West. Extreme heat rising in Oklahoma City. Destructive winter storms raging in Texas.
All of these are related to climate – and so related to energy. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science collects and analyzes data on climate and other Earth systems so that we can understand their interdependence with energy production and use. Computer simulations of the Earth can help us better understand how the carbon balance, water cycle, and extreme weather events are shifting in the face of climate change. They can also help us paint a better picture of what that means for our communities, especially the most vulnerable ones. This information can guide us in deciding how to make energy systems more resilient, economically sound, and environmentally sustainable. This Earth Day, we’re recognizing and celebrating the scientists and their research that furthers our understanding of these systems every day.
The first step in better understanding the Earth’s systems is collecting data on them. That’s not always so easy.
One example is the MOSAiC project, which purposely froze an icebreaker into the Arctic Ocean. This allowed them the ability to collect year-round data from this crucial region. Along with a number of other federal agencies and universities, researchers supported by the Office of Science and its Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility gathered observations on clouds, weather, and sea ice.
In Alaska, researchers from universities and DOE national laboratories conduct field studies in similarly brutal conditions. They look at how climate change is affecting the rate of permafrost thaw. With the Arctic’s temperature rising at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world and permafrost storing much of Earth’s carbon, thawing permafrost could greatly accelerate climate change.
In the Amazon, scientists supported by the Office of Science gather observations throughout the forest canopy to collect information on the gases huge trees release. These gases influence cloud formation and the Earth’s energy balance. Other efforts involve flying planes into storms approaching California, studying huge cloud systems in the Southern Great Plains, and evaluating how upwind air pollution can affect cloud properties in the Azores.
All of these data, plus intensive observations of changing hydrology and ecosystems in watersheds, feed into computer models that predict changes in the Earth’s systems over time.
DOE’s premier Earth system model is the Energy Exascale Earth System Model, or E3SM. By integrating the atmosphere, oceans, and land into a unified system, it reveals how these various components interact. It also shows how climate and land use change can have cascading and surprising effects on these systems. For example, the warming oceans and melting of the glaciers such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are leading to sea level rise. E3SM and its ice sheet submodels are designed to be able to better predict these events that contribute to coastal vulnerabilities. In particular, E3SM is unique for how it’s built to take advantage of DOE’s upcoming exascale supercomputers, which will be far faster than current computers.
The end goals of developing these Earth system models are to advance the science and empower decision makers through scientific data. Predictions about how extreme weather, sea level rise, and droughts will affect energy infrastructure, agriculture, and housing can help people plan for the future. It can guide decisions on planning wind farms, growing crops for biofuels, and predicting spikes in electricity use. It can even guide national climate policy.
As Earth systems models make simulations with better and better resolution, they get more accurate and useful. Recent research has shown that E3SM can be a valuable tool for simulating tropical cyclones, including their storm surges and flooding. Multi-sector models that include human behavior further illuminate these connections and possible results. Researchers at DOE national labs are working with communities – especially vulnerable communities most affected by climate change – to make these Earth systems models as helpful as possible.
Our Earth is a set of complex and interlocking systems. Researchers supported by the DOE’s Office of Science are doing their best to unravel the mysteries of climate change and Earth system science and help us plan for the future of the planet we all live on.